Polishing SPUR - Page 5

A downtown ally is building a new home. It's also trying to create a new image
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Though SPUR asks members to check their special interests at the door, Radulovich couldn't say that always happened and recalled an example from an endorsement meeting at which a campaign consultant made an impassioned speech for the campaign on which he was working.

As far as his board membership was concerned, Radulovich said, "there were times I definitely felt like a token.... Development interests and wealthy people were much better represented."

Some say that isn't about to change. "SPUR has been, is, and I guess always will be the rational front for developers," said Calvin Welch, a legendary San Francisco housing activist. "The members of SPUR are real estate lawyers, professional investors, and developers. Its original function was to be the Greek chorus for urban renewal and redevelopment."

Welch and Radulovich agree SPUR doesn't represent San Franciscans, and Welch suggests the Dec. 4 Board of Supervisors hearing on an affordable-housing charter amendment was a case in point. "The people who got up to speak, I'd argue that's San Francisco, and it doesn't look a fucking thing like SPUR."

SPUR recently applied for a tax-exempt bond capped at $7 million from the California Municipal Finance Authority to help pay the cost of SPUR's new Urban Center. It's a standard loan for a nonprofit — SPUR is both a 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) — but some neighborhood activists raised questions about whether SPUR's project is an appropriate expense for taxpayer cash.

"There's no city money going toward the Urban Center, but by using tax-exempt bond financing they're depriving the US Treasury of tax revenues," Salomon said. "The people who are funding SPUR can afford to buy them a really nice building, with cash."

The Urban Center also received a $231,000 federal earmark from Rep. Nancy Pelosi, whose nephew Laurence Pelosi is a former SPUR board member. Another $967,500 will come to SPUR from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment, which voters set aside through Proposition 40 to fund projects that "provide a thread of California's cultural and historical resources."

Metcalf said SPUR isn't sitting on a pile of cash: "We're not that wealthy. We just don't have that level of funding." The group's endowment is small, and according to its 2006 annual report, revenues were $1.8 million, 90 percent of that from memberships and special events. The annual Silver Spur Awards, at which the group celebrates the work of local individuals, from Feinstein to Walter Shorenstein to Warren Hellman, is one of the biggest cash cows for SPUR, typically netting more than half a million dollars.

So far most of the funds for the Urban Center have come from donations raised from board members, individuals, businesses, and foundations. Metcalf defends the use of public funds. "For a group like SPUR that needs to be out in front on controversial issues, our work depends on having a diverse funding base. The Urban Center is part of that," he said.

The new headquarters is modeled on similar urban centers in Paris and New York, places that invite the public to view exhibits and get involved in answering some of the bigger planning questions cities are facing as populations increase and sprawl reigns. According to SPUR, this will be the first urban center west of Chicago, and the doors should open in 2009.

Walker, who's been a board member for about a year, isn't ready to say SPUR has been transformed. "It's in my bones to be skeptical of SPUR," she said. "I have a different perspective than most of the people who are on SPUR, but the membership is different from the people who are funding it. I still think we need to have a more progressive policy think tank as well."

Walker recruits for SPUR's membership development committee and said some of her suggestions have been well received.